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In His Feathers chronicles battle with terminal cancer

August 7, 2006

In His FeathersIt’s okay, read the last page first, because there’s no surprise ending in the new book by James C. Schaap, published by Dordt College Press.

In His Feathers is a story drawn from the actual journal entries of Sharon (Wagenaar) Bomgaars, a Northwest Iowa native, who was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 1999 and died three years later in 2002.

That’s where the story begins and ends. But in the pages between, readers will find a tumultuous blend of rejoicing and agonizing, joy and pain, delight and despair—all the responses that occur when Sharon Bomgaars, a woman with great faith, learns that her cancer is terminal.

In His Feathers is a travelogue, a slide show, a memory book, but it’s also a love story … it’s a book of meditations drawn from deeply felt Christian faith that operates in the very heart,” says Schaap, who sifted through over thousands of pages of journal entries to arrive at this vivid account of life with terminal cancer. Several Dordt College students assisted Schaap in the production of the book: Andrew De Young, Bloomington, MN; Liz Mc Pherson, Lincoln, NE; Melissa Drake, Griswold, IA, and Heather Riblet, Somers, IA; and graphic designers Sarah Franken and Rob Haan, both of Sioux Center.

Before her death, Sharon and her husband, Dennis, approached Schaap with the concept of writing a book from her journals. They had read and loved the book he wrote about the life of Diet Eman, Things We Couldn’t Say. Though Schaap agreed the story needed to be told, he was convinced Sharon was the one who should tell it. Schaap says about 90 percent of the book is pulled directly from Sharon’s journals, supplemented with his simple narration that walks readers through a powerful life story.

The bird’s eye view of life with cancer is particularly appropriate coming from Bomgaars, who was an avid birdwatcher. The book’s title reflects both her passion for birding and the Biblical imagery of safely abiding in the “shadow of his wings” found in Psalms 17:8.

Sharon (Wagenaar) Bomgaars was born and raised on a farm near Sheldon. She attended Sheldon Christian School and Unity Christian High School before marrying her high school sweetheart at the age of 18.

The newlyweds both attended Dordt College in Sioux Center for a year, but Sharon then gave up her studies to become a mother. Upon Dennis’ graduation (Dordt Class of ’80), the family of four packed everything they owned into a 6x12 foot U-Haul and moved to Jackson, MS. There Dennis attended Reformed Theological Seminary and the family size grew by two. Sharon, who home-schooled her four children through high school, may well be best described as “just a mom who cared about her kids,” According to Schaap. “Like nothing else, she wanted to be a great wife and mom.”

“When God’s will seems so clear, I cannot dig in my heels and drag my feet,” remarks Bomgaars at one point in the book. “It seems best to me to talk with my children of my death, to prepare for it calmly, and to use this time to put my life in order and smooth the path for those I love.”

With a gift of money from a friend, Bomgaars determined to make the most of time she was given to organize a handful of their own “Make-A-Wish-type” trips to see the things she’d always dreamed of seeing, noting the prayer of Jepthah’s daughter in Judges 11:37: “But grant me this one request … give me two months to roam the hills and weep with my friends.”

“Only, I am not weeping,” admits Sharon in her journal. “I feel I am partying—traveling and shopping and eating ice cream cones and doing all those things I could not do when the kids were small and I never left home except to go to the grocery store. I am certain that this is a frivolous pleasure, but it is a pleasure that I am very glad that God allowed me.”

Small joys like the song of a bird, the words in good books, the refreshing taste of a swallow of ice water (when that was all that would go down) are all noted, along with the realities of chemotherapy, surgeries, and planning her own funeral. “God doesn’t mind giving me lots of little treats,” says Bomgaars at one point in the book. “I can’t have the big prize (life) but he sure gives me lots of little ones!”

During her three year battle with cancer Sharon was able to travel with family members over 25,000 miles, to destinations across the U.S. and Canada. She also witnessed the marriages of two sons before death and her eventual funeral, on the day of her 27th wedding anniversary.

Sharon concludes the book with these final words: “God is gracious. He has sustained me through cancer.” Readers will find the story neither morbid or depressing, but an honest and open reflection of one woman’s triumphs and struggles while facing a life-threatening illness.

“I think Sharon’s story challenges each of us to live life to the fullest. When we’re ready to die, then we’re truly prepared to live,” said Schaap.

The book, published by Dordt College Press, will be available at the Dordt Bookstore on August 19 ( http://bookstore.dordt.edu ) and from other area book outlets and on-line book outlets (ISBN 978-0-932914-68-2).

Excerpt from In His Feathers

I’m a little jealous of you this morning. I would love a future. To think in terms of a future seems to me now to be a luxurious privilege. I feel as if I am being fed a meal, blindfolded. I can see nothing. I don’t know what the menu offers. And I can’t even see the table. God is spooning me tidbits, bite by bite. Will the next bite be bread and butter, or chicken stew, or will the spoon be empty? I can only wait and wonder. You seem to be looking at a banquet. You have a fork in your hand and you choose your bites. Will it be strawberry shortcake or chicken cordon bleu? Hmmm. I think I’ll have the chicken first and then finish off with the whipped cream and shortcake. That’s what I’m jealous of—that seeing the meal and that choosing the next bite.

Sharon Bomgaars, Oct. 27, 2001

Praise for In His Feathers

“[The book is] a wonderful, and yet agonizing journey with an unusually honest Christian woman. Even though we know the sad ending to the story, the suspense and pleasure of walking alongside Sharon Bomgaars is a rare joy. She fights for her life and both reaches for, and pushes away, the Lord she loves deeply and sincerely. Sharon Bomgaars shows us how to live and how to die as she packs her diminishing life with delight, suffers intensely, and accepts her imminent death, bravely and faithfully. In His Feathers should help many, many people.”

Pastor Jim Kok, Director of the Conference on Care and Kindness
The Crystal Cathedral, Garden Grove, California

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